Law for all
6 January 2009
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A common misunderstanding among both A Level and undergraduate students is that you have to read law to train as a solicitor or barrister. That simply isnt the case.
Non-law graduates make up quite a large pool of trainee solicitors and pupils. The typical split between law and non-law graduates in a law firms trainee solicitor intake is around 60/40 per cent. Whats more as we reported on the front cover of the Autumn 2008 issue of Lawyer 2B magazine the looming recession has resulted in a significant jump in the number of non-law students seeking shelter in the legal sector as it is seen as a safe haven in times of economic troubles.
Compared to this time last year international law firm Baker & McKenzie has seen applications from non-law students for training contracts and vacation schemes jump by 28 and 34 per cent respectively. The firms graduate recruitment and development manager Justine Beedle warns that given this increase it is important for non-lawyers to work hard to ensure their applications stand out from the crowd. Non-lawyers should demonstrate that they have been proactive in researching their career and have a genuine interest in law explaining what initially prompted their interest and the experiences they have to endorse this, explains Beedle.
However, non-law students should not think that they are at a disadvantage and should approach their applications with confidence.
Deborah Dalgleish, the head of UK trainee recruitment at magic circle law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer says of hiring non-law students: Variety is the spice of life. When youve trainees who have studied astrophysics and theology as well as law, you can be fairly sure that youll have stimulating colleagues, a satisfying working environment and some very different approaches to problems.
Non-law students have had to think very carefully about what career might interest them rather than just apply because theyre on the law conveyor belt, adds Dalgleish.
Beedle agrees with Dalgleish about the benefits of hiring non-law students to train as solicitors. She says: Non law students can bring a range of different skills and perspectives, which are of great benefit to law firms. For instance Historians often have very strong analytical skills and language students, particularly those who have spent a year of their degree abroad, often bring a first hand knowledge and understanding of different cultures.
So whether youre an economist, linguist or even a medic its not too late to train as a lawyer. But if you do decide to make the switch youll need to be prepared for an extra year of study, as you must complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or Common Professional Exam (CPE).
Are some degree subjects preferable than others?
Graduates from any discipline can pursue a legal career as Dalgleish puts it: Law firms want to recruit people who can think clearly and who can express themselves clearly. If a candidate can demonstrate this then the degree subject they read is immaterial.
Indeed, in addition to traditional subjects such as history, languages and the sciences Baker & McKenzie has recruited trainees who have graduated with degrees in more unusual subjects including ceramic science and ceramic engineering.
There are, however, a number of subjects, which offer very good training for work as a lawyer. Historians and classicists should be used to reading and analysing large quantities of material; English students and linguists often have a certain facility with understanding and using language precisely while scientists and mathematicians can offer a very logical approach to problem solving.
Some subjects also lend themselves very well to certain practice areas. If you are a science student, for instance, it may be worth applying to law firms/chambers that specialise in intellectual property law.
Applying for conversion courses
The GDL and CPE, often referred to as the law conversion courses, essentially squeeze the compulsory subjects covered by a law degree into one year so it can be pretty full on. On completion you will be on the same footing as law graduates and will then have to do the Legal Practice Course (for future solicitors) or Bar Vocational Course (for future barristers).
To be eligible for the GDL you must hold a degree (other than an honorary degree) from a UK university. If you are an overseas student or a mature non-law graduate you will need to apply for a Certificate of Academic Standing from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or Bar Standards Board.
If you are unsure whether you qualify for a place on a conversion course we recommend that you contact the SRA or the institution(s) you are thinking of applying to.
The GDL is run by both BPP Law School and the College of Law. But a number of universities also offer the course and in some cases are considerably cheaper. The Lawyer2B.com Law Schools Index contains a detailed list of GDL/CPE providers including how much they charge. Some conversion courses can cost over 8,000 while at the cheaper end the fees are a more affordable 3,000.
Though cost is important it is also worth considering others factors such as location, teaching and assessment methods, (and indeed quality of teaching), class sizes, the law schools links with the profession, the level of individual careers guidance and any relevant extra curricular activities on offer. You should also find out whether the GDL can be upgraded into an LLB and, if so, whether you will need to complete any additional modules to secure the top-up.
Most law schools have open days aimed specifically at students interested in converting to law where you should be able meet existing students and teaching staff. It is also worth finding out whether a GDL provider will guarantee you a place on its Legal Practice Course/Bar Vocational Course or even offer you a discount.
Check out the Lawyer2B.com events diary or individual law school websites for more information on law school open days.
You need to apply for full-time GDL/CPE courses online via the Central Applications Board. You can start applying from the autumn term of your final year at university. The closing date for submitting applications for courses starting during the next academic year is 2 February 2009, though applications may be considered after this date if places remain.
Theres very little difference between content of the GDL and CPE. Both courses include an introduction to the English legal system and basic legal research skills. You will then be taught seven compulsory foundation subjects: law of contract; law of tort; criminal law; property law; public law; equity and the law of trusts; and law of the European Union. Additionally, you will be able to pick one further area of law in which to specialise. This is usually referred to as the other area of law.
Proving a commitment to law
One of the biggest challenges non-law students face is proving that they are genuinely interested in pursuing a career in law. With this in mind it is vital to secure as much law-related work experience as possible. Most firms allow non-lawyers to apply for places on their vacations schemes while some even run programmes (normally at Christmas) specifically for non-law undergraduates. Check out the Lawyer2B.com Salary Index for vacation scheme application deadlines as they may differ to the ones set for law students.
Freshfields Dalgleish advises not to panic if you fail to get a place on a vacation scheme. Dont worry too much about legal work experience all work experience is valuable and you shouldnt be penalised for no having done internships while and undergraduate if you didnt realise until later that this was a career path, she explains.
When should you apply for a training contract?
The good news is that if you secure a training contract before you start the GDL most of the large City firms will pay the fees and provide a maintenance grant. So although non-law undergraduates can apply for a training contract at any time during their final year it makes sense to submit your applications in the autumn term so that you can apply for a place on the GDL with a job offer in your pocket.
Indeed, if your grades are relatively poor or you are not 100 per cent sure about a career in law it may make more sense to delay applying for a place on a conversion course until you graduate. This will, however, add an extra year to the length of time it takes to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. But as Dalgleish put it: With the amount of debt most students are forced to take on even as undergraduates, its hard to advise an individual to take the risk of attending law school without sponsorship although sadly for those interested in smaller practices, sponsorship may not be available anyway.
Top tips for converting to law
Law conversion courses are not faint hearted so think seriously about your motivations for applying. Attend law firm presentations and law fairs to learn more about the legal profession and to assess whether you would make a good lawyer.
Pick your GDL provider carefully. In addition to cost look at the structure, content, teaching and assessment methods.
Research institutions by attending open days to check out facilities and to meet students/tutors.
Get some law-related work experience to demonstrate interest in the legal profession some law firms offer vacations schemes aimed specifically at non-lawyers.
Investigate funding options what grants/bursaries/awards are available? Note that most of commercial law firms will sponsor the GDL (check out the Lawyer2B.com Salary Index for more information).
If funding is an issue then consider applying for part-time or distant learning courses. Note that Career Development Loans are no longer available for law conversion courses.
Non-law students can apply for training contracts at any stage in their final year but it may be worth submitting applications in the autumn term so that you have a job in the bag before making a decision on starting the GDL (GDL applications have to be made by early February).
Check out the Lawyer2B.com Law Schools Index for a list of GDL/CPE providers.
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